The danger in having been around for a reasonable time, of being reasonably prolific throughout that time and of not changing hugely from one release to the next, is that there comes a point when a performer can start to sound like a parody of themselves – so predictable that you’re not sure if the song you’re hearing is really by them or simply by someone doing a very good impression.
Bonnie Prince Billy has reached this point with Beware, his latest studio album and his ninth in as many years. Its 13 songs are a more commercial and accessible offering than usual, teaming traditional country melodies and miserabilism with grandiose production and thus burying its alt.country sensibilities a little deeper below the surface than we’re used to.
In song titles including You Don’t Love Me, You Are Lost and You Can’t Hurt Me Now, however, there’s a feeling of disappointment that isn’t the one you usually get from listening to the artist sometimes known as Will Oldham. Rather than a sense that life really is futile and the only escape is to go and slit your wrists this second, there’s an undercurrent of traditional country chirpiness of the kind that has resigned itself to poverty, alcoholism and unfaithful lovers with a fixed grin on its face as well as a black eye.
There are a number of elements that add to this: accordions and brass, the staples of barn dance country, female backing singers and, on some tracks, even the addition of what might be a gospel choir. All, apparently, are used without irony.
At times there are snippets of the old Billy. The creepy opener Beware Your Only Friend, in which Oldham begs to take on that position in a Cable Guy/Single White Female sort of way, starts things off more promisingly than they progress. The slow, midnight lullaby of I Won’t Ask Again peers into the unrelenting darkness of the soul we’ve come to expect from him and album closer Ain’t Afraid Of Me suggests that, actually, you probably should be.
Such tracks are few and too far between, however, and in between them he borrows tricks from John Denver (My Life’s Work) and Dolly Parton (I Don’t Belong To Anyone) so well that you’ll spend too much time trying to work out exactly how far his tongue is planted in his cheek before you realise that it isn’t. The cheeriness underlying You Can’t Hurt Me Now and You Don’t Love Me surely shouldn’t be sincere but nonetheless seem to stand up to scrutiny.
So what’s happened? The easy answer is that somewhere between this album and the last, Bonnie Prince Billy has cheered up. It wouldn’t be impossible: after all, it nearly happened to Morrissey, which surely means it could happen to anyone.
Yet at other times, such as on the minimal and painfully fragile There Is Something I Have To Say, he sounds like the fractured and drowning soul we’ve come to love. While this means that all is not lost (or perhaps more accurately, saved), it does leave the listener with a sense that he’s not sure whether he wants to embrace a new direction or not, resulting in an album that is somewhat disjointed and ultimately unfulfilling.